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#26 – On Staying in Balance: “But it keeps moving!”

October 11, 2020 Leave a comment

Outfielder Johnny Damon spent 18 years, from 1995 until 2013, playing baseball in the American League.  During that time, he maintained a batting average of .284, accumulated 2,769 hits (including 235 homeruns), batted in 1,139 runs, and stole 408 bases.  He also played in two World Series, was twice selected to the American League All-Star Team, and in 2000 led the league in stolen bases.  Damon accumulated these numbers while playing for seven different teams.  With four of these, he spent just one season, while the bulk of his playing career included six seasons with the Kansas City Royals, four with the Boston Red Sox, and four with the New York Yankees. 

As he started with each new club, Damon had to make certain adjustments.  Each team has its own policies and expectations regarding the appearance and behavior of its players both on and off the field.  Most of these are informal, frequently unspoken, and new players simply observe the veterans on the team and then follow their example.  An exception, however, is the military-style grooming code of the New York Yankees, established by the outspoken team owner George Steinbrenner in 1973 and still in place today, more than a decade after his death in 2010.

Steinbrenner stipulated that all New York Yankee players, coaches, and even male executives and administrators were not to display any facial hair other than mustaches (except possibly for religious reasons) and that scalp hair could not be allowed to grow down below the collar.  Sideburns might be permitted, provided they were of moderate length.  Moreover, during the National Anthem when the players’ caps were removed, if he determined that any player’s hair was too long, Steinbrenner would send word to the dugout that the offending player’s hair had to be trimmed before the next game.  

When Johnny Damon prepared to begin his four-year term with the Yankees, he had just completed his four-year stint with the Red Sox.  In Boston, the policies regarding personal appearance were generally casual.  As a result, facial hair had become common, and Damon had allowed both his hair and beard to grow to an extent that he was sometimes referred to as “the caveman in center field.”  Yet Damon knew about the policy in New York and did not hesitate to respond when asked about it, saying “George Steinbrenner has a policy and I’m going to stick to it.”  Before leaving Boston, Damon shaved his beard and had his hair cut and neatly groomed at an appropriate length.  When Steinbrenner was asked about his newly arriving player, he responded, “He looks like a Yankee, he sounds like a Yankee, and he is a Yankee.” 

Highly motivated ballplayers like Johnny Damon have little difficulty staying focused and adjusting to the expectations of their respective organizations.  Unlike Damon, however, most of us face more mundane and yet compelling demands on our time and attention.  Over the years I have been in practice, more than a few people have come to me complaining of the stress they have been under in trying to meet the expectations of various institutions.  When I ask about their circumstances, I generally get a familiar recitation — where they are from, where they went to school, what kind of career they have or aspire to, and what their family is like.  What follows is a litany of how their lives have become so busy and so demanding that they feel as if they have lost themselves.

Our work usually starts with helping these people recognize and accept that dealing with institutions is a necessary part of modern life.  Most of us belong to or must deal, often simultaneously, with multiple institutions, some voluntarily and some not, both formal and informal.  Formal institutions frequently dominate; they include government, religion, education, the military, business organizations, and others.  Informal institutions, while somewhat less well defined, are often just as influential and include such groups as clubs, social groups, neighborhood gatherings, volunteer organizations, and what is arguably one of the most powerful of institutions – the family.

Many of these institutions provide us with beneficial things like information and training, partnerships or assistance, instructions to help with a variety of challenges, and sometimes even emotional support.  Perhaps the greatest benefit of all, however, is that membership in an institution gives us each a sense of identity and belonging.  Yet to keep receiving these benefits, it is often necessary for us to conform to the codes and norms by which these institutions operate.  Indeed, there is often a serious penalty imposed on anyone who fails to conform as expected; this may include criticism or denunciation or even expulsion.  And to make matters worse, the norms of some of these institutions may conflict with those of other institutions to which we belong, putting us in the stressful position of having divided loyalties.  Yet as difficult as that situation is, what tends to be even more detrimental is that our ongoing effort to adhere to all the prescribed institutional codes and norms can severely restrict or even shut down our ability to gain the full realization and expression of our own individuality.  Hence, the resulting feeling of being lost.

The challenge for each of us then is in learning how to balance our lives.  First, we must find ways to conform to the norms of the institutions in our lives sufficiently to get our needs met.  At the same time, we must continually acknowledge to ourselves that we have a right to be the individuals we were born to be.  Moreover, it is important to recognize that this balancing act between our institutions and ourselves as individuals is not a one-and-done proposition.  Indeed, it is a life-long requirement that only becomes more challenging as life in general becomes more crowded and more complicated. 

Certainly, the daily pressures to conform that we all must face can be daunting.  Indeed, history is full of examples of how various institutions horribly punished — even tortured and killed — those who failed to meet their requirements to conform.  Ironically, however, it is those who have throughout history refused to conform, no matter the cost, that we tend to revere the most.  This realization often reminds me that each of us brings something to humanity’s party that no one else can.  Our DNA makes us each unique; even identical twins, being born at different times and having different life experiences, have at least slightly different outlooks.  Thus, maintaining the balance between satisfying institutional expectations and honoring our own individuality can enable us to be vital and healthy and to make our own unique contributions.  As a result, we can all enjoy the party! 

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